November–The Ninth Month

November–The Ninth Month

On the thirteenth of this “ninth” month the Romans held a feast in honour of Jupiter, the ruler of gods and men. From the clouded top of Mount Olympus he held sway over the whole world, and even the gods had to bow to his supreme will. Terrible indeed was it to anger any of the gods, but no punishment was more swift and sure than that sent by Jupiter when he was enraged. We have seen how with his thunderbolt he slew the proud and reckless Phaeton, and we have another example in the story of Bellerophon. This hero, who was staying at the court of a Grecian king, was set the task of killing the Chimaera, a terrible monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, a dragon’s tail, and breath of fire. While sorrowfully wondering how he could possibly perform so difficult a task, Bellerophon suddenly found before him the goddess Minerva, who asked him the cause of his trouble. As soon as she had learnt of his task she promised to help him, and, giving him a golden bridle, told him to bridle the horse Pegasus.

Now Pegasus was a winged horse which the sea-god Neptune had made from the drops of blood that fell into the sea from the head of the Gorgon Medusa, slain by Perseus. He was perfectly white and of great speed, and, as Bellerophon well knew, came down to earth to drink at a certain spring. Bellerophon waited in hiding by this spring, and taking Pegasus by surprise, jumped upon his back. The winged horse at once flew up to a great height, trying to unseat Bellerophon; but the hero succeeded in putting on Minerva’s golden bridle, when Pegasus at once became gentle. Bellerophon then set off on his task, and suddenly swooping down from the sky upon the Chimaera, overcame and killed the dreadful monster. His task accomplished, he might now have lived in happiness, but he became filled with pride because of the wonderful flights he had made on Pegasus. One day, as he soared up higher and higher, he began to think himself equal to the gods, and wished to join them on Mount Olympus. This angered Jupiter, who sent a gadfly which stung Pegasus. Suddenly rearing up, the winged horse threw the proud Bellerophon far down to the earth beneath.

The goddess, Minerva, who appeared to Bellerophon, was a daughter of Jupiter, but she was born in a very strange way, for she sprang out of her father’s head, clothed in bright armour, and with a spear in her hand. She became the Goddess of Wisdom (as we have seen in the story of Paris), of the arts and the sciences, and of spinning and weaving. Her skill in weaving is shown by the following story.

There once lived in Greece a girl named Arachne, who was so clever at needlework that at last in her pride she boasted that she could weave more skilfully than Minerva herself. Minerva, angered by these words, one day came down to Arachne’s home, and accepted the challenge which she had so rashly made. The story is thus told by the poet Spenser in “The Fate of the Butterflie”:

  “Minerva did the challenge not refuse,
But deigned with her the paragon to make;
So to their work they sit, and each doth choose
What story she will for her tapet take”.

Arachne pictured the story of Jupiter when, disguised as a white bull, he carried off Europa to the land which afterwards bore the name Europe. Minerva chose for her work the story of her own contest with the sea-god Neptune as to which of them should have the honour of naming a new city that had been built in Greece. Jupiter had said that the honour would be given to the one who gave the most useful gift to man, and he called all the gods together to judge the contest. Neptune struck the ground with his trident and there sprang forth a horse. The gods were filled with wonder at the sight of the noble animal, and when Neptune explained how useful it would be to man, they all thought that the victory would be his. Minerva then produced an olive tree; at this all the gods laughed with scorn, but when the goddess, heedless of their laughter, had explained how all its parts–the wood, the fruit, and the leaves–could be used by man, how it was the sign of peace while the horse was the symbol of war, they decided that Minerva had won, and since her name among the Greeks was Athene, she gave to the city the name of Athens.

All this the goddess wove in her tapestry:
“Then sets she forth, how with her weapon dread
She smote the ground, the which straight forth did yield
A fruitful Olive tree, with berries spread,
That all the gods admired: then all the story
She compassed with a wreath of Olives hoary.
Amongst the leaves she made a Butterfly,
With excellent device and wondrous sleight,
Flutt’ring among the Olives wantonly,
That seemed to live, so like it was in sight;
The velvet nap which on his wings doth lie,
The silken down with which his back is dight,
His broad outstretched horns, his hairy thighs,
His glorious colours, and his glistening eyes.
Which when Arachne saw, as overlaid
And mastered with workmanship so rare,
She stood astonied long, nor ought gainsaid;
And with fast-fixed eyes on her did stare,
And by her silence, sugn of one dismayed,
The victory did yield her as her share.”

Then in anger and despair, the unhappy girl hanged herself, and Minerva turned her dangling body into a spider, and bade her for ever spin and weave.

The Angles and Saxons had two names for this month of November: “Windmonath”, that is, “wind month”, and “Blodmonath”, that is, “blood month”. The latter name arose from the fact that during this month they slaughtered large numbers of cattle to last them through the cold and dreary winter.


December–The Tenth Month

December–The Tenth Month

The chief festival of this “tenth” and last month of the Roman year was the Saturnalia, held on the seventeenth of the month in honour of Saturn, the father of Jupiter. Saturn, or Cronos, as the Greeks called him, was one of the Titans, the six giant sons of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). Uranus ruled before the days of Man, but he was overthrown by his son Saturn, who became for a time the supreme ruler of the universe. Uranus, however, prophesied that Saturn would one day himself be overthrown by his children, and in order to avoid this, Saturn, when his first child was born, immediately swallowed him! As other children were born, he swallowed each of them until at last Rhea, his wife, succeeded in hiding her youngest son, Jupiter, and deceived Saturn by giving him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which, in his haste, he swallowed without realizing the trick played upon him. Jupiter was thus saved, and when he grew up he overthrew his father, as Uranus had foretold. Saturn, having lost his power, took refuge on the Earth, and became king of a part of Italy, which, as Virgil tells us in the eighth book of his Aeneid, he called Latium, since it was there that he lay hid (Latin: lateo= to lie hidden). “Saturn was the first to come from heavenly Olympus, fleeing the arms of Jupiter, an exile deprived of his kingdom. He it was who made into a nation a people untaught and scattered on the mountain tops, and gave them laws, and chose that the land should be called ‘Latium’ because in safety he had lain hidden in this region.”

Jupiter’s rule was very soon threatened by the Titans, who refused to bow to his will, but after a long and terrible struggle, the giants were overthrown by Jupiter’s thunderbolts. One of the giants was imprisoned under Mount Aetna, where, breathing out fire and smoke, he still struggles to free himself, thus causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Another of the Titans, Iapetus, had two sons, Prometheus (Forethought) and Epimetheus (Afterthought). To these two gods fell the task of making man, who was to rule over all living creatures. Prometheus was very anxious to give to the race of men that he had fashioned a power that would make them supreme on the earth, and nearer to the gods themselves. The way in which he could best bestow this power upon them was by the gift of fire, for fire belonged only to the gods and was jealously guarded by them. In spite of the terrible punishment which he knew awaited him should he be discovered, Prometheus determined to steal fire from heaven, and during one dark night he brought down to the earth a burning stick from the home of the gods on Mount Olympus. Jupiter, seeing an unaccustomed light on the earth, discovered the theft, and his rage knew no bounds. He seized Prometheus, carried him off to the Caucasus Mountains, and there bound him with chains to a huge rock. Then he sent a vulture that, day after day, might feed upon his liver, which grew again during the night so that the terrible torture of the god should have no end. After hundreds of years of this ghastly pain and suffering, Prometheus was rescued by Hercules, who came to him to ask him where he might find the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Hercules killed the vulture, broke Prometheus’ chains, and released the tortured god, who in return advised Hercules to go to the giant Atlas, who knew where the apples were, as we have seen in the story of Atlas’ daughter, Maia.

Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus, married the beautiful Pandora, and at first lived with her in great happiness, for in those early days the earth was free from pain, sickness, and ills of every kind. One evening they saw Mercury, the messenger of the gods, coming towards them and bearing on his shoulder a huge box which seemed to be of great weight. Tired out with his burden, Mercury begged permission to leave the box to their care, promising to return for it in a short time. Pandora and Epimetheus readily granted permission, and Mercury placed the box in their house and hastily departed. Pandora was at once filled with great curiosity as to what the box might contain, and suggested to Epimetheus that, they should just peep inside. Epimetheus was shocked by Pandora’s lack of good manners, and, replying that they must not think of such a thing, he went out, calling to Pandora to follow him. But Pandora’s curiosity was now thoroughly aroused, and the temptation overcame her when she found herself alone. Quickly she undid the cord which bound the box, and, thinking she beard sounds in the box, she put her ear close to the lid. To her surprise she heard voices calling, “Let us out! let us out!” Pandora, filled with excitement, slowly raised the lid a little, just for a peep, as she said to herself. But no sooner was the box opened than out flew little winged creatures, some of which settled on Pandora and Epimetheus, who had now returned, and stung them so that they knew pain for the first time. Then escaping into the world, these insects, Evil, Sickness, Unhappiness, and all the little troubles of life, became a cause of endless pain and suffering to men and women. Poor Pandora was broken hearted, and her eyes filled with tears at the thought of the harm she had done. Then again she was startled to hear a voice still calling from the box. It sounded so kind and gentle and pleaded so sweetly to be let out, that Pandora raised the lid a second time, and out flew Hope, who had been shut in with the cruel insects, and now fluttered busily over the earth, healing the wounds made by her evil companions.

This cheery little creature, Hope, may well be associated with the winter month December, when Ceres and her trees and flowers mourn for the smiling Persephone, yet cling to the hope of her return. It is Hope who bids us say with the poet, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

On December 25th, the Romans held a festival of the winter solstice, the turning point of winter, when the days begin to grow longer. It was called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun), and it is very probable that for this reason the Christians chose the 25th of December for the birthday of Christ. In early times Christmas (the Mass or Feast of Christ) was kept at different times in the year, but it was finally fixed on December 25th, since on that day there was already held this heathen festival to the sun, which had a meaning in some way similar to that of our Christmas. It was an easy thing to make the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, which wakes all nature from its winter sleep, into the Birthday of the Unconquered Son of God, who brought new life and hope to the world.

The same thing took place among the northern races of Europe and in our own islands. The first Christian missionaries found that, at the time of year we now call Christmas, the Northmen kept a festival called Yule, the greatest feast in the year. “Yule” means “wheel”, and the festival was so named because the sun was thought to be like a wheel revolving swiftly across the sky. It used at one time to be a custom in England and Germany for the people to gather each year on a hill-top, to set fire to a huge wooden wheel bound with straw, and to send it rolling down the hill. The Christians made this festival into a Christian festival, and we still speak of Christmas as Yuletide. The origin of Santa Claus is St. Nicholas, who was the patron saint of Russia. He was famous for his kindness and generosity, and a festival was held in his honour on the 6th of December.

The custom of giving “Christmas boxes” comes from the Romans, and in later days these gifts came to be called “boxes”, because at Christmas time boxes were hung up in the churches in which people might put money, for the poor. On the day after Christmas Day these boxes were opened, and the day was thus known as “Boxing Day”. Another custom which comes from the Romans is that of having a Christmas tree hung with toys–a custom which dates back to the Saturnalia. Virgil, in his book called The Georgics, describes how the farmers, when holding a festival in honour of Bacchus, God of Wine, “hang from the tall pine tiny waving masks” of the god.

December also had two names among the Angles and Saxons: “Wintermonath”, and “Heligmonath”, that is, “holy month”, from the fact that Christmas falls in this month.